U.S. lawmakers from Pa., N.J. look at gun measures

U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin (D., W. Va.), a lifelong NRA member, said it was time to consider gun regulations.
U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin (D., W. Va.), a lifelong NRA member, said it was time to consider gun regulations. (DAVE MARTIN / AP)
Posted: December 19, 2012

WASHINGTON - Sensing a sudden shift in attitudes on gun laws, Democrats from Philadelphia and New Jersey forcefully called Monday for bans on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, and tougher background checks for gun purchases.

"Those who are uncomfortable supporting that kind of legislation, I can't imagine how they would explain that to a mom or a dad in Newtown, Conn., today," Mayor Nutter said.

With grief, shock, and anger still vivid after the schoolhouse murders in Newtown, local officials who have typically opposed new gun laws offered muted responses, declining interview requests and producing statements with fuzzy nods toward examining existing laws but without taking a clear stance on any new proposals.

Calls for tougher gun laws after a mass shooting are not new, but longtime advocates for restrictions on access to the most powerful guns said the haunting impression of 6- and 7-year-olds being killed at school has made this moment different.

"This has touched people so personally and so deeply that they will expect their elected officials to take action," said U.S. Rep. Robert E. Andrews (D., N.J.).

He pointed to comments from several staunchly pro-gun lawmakers who opened the door Monday to new regulations.

Andrews, like Democrats from across the country, called for reinstating the assault weapons ban that expired in 2004, citing the semiautomatic Bushmaster rifle used in the rampage in which 20 children and six adults were killed Friday.

"These are weapons that should be used in Afghanistan, not Connecticut," Andrews said.

Nutter said Newtown represented "a tipping point," following shootings in Tucson, Ariz., and Aurora, Colo.

"This time, we are talking about children, elementary school children, the youngest, most innocent, taken away from us. Enough is enough," Sen. Robert Menendez (D., N.J.) said on the Senate floor. He later added: "Let Newtown be the turning point."

Menendez called for more comprehensive background checks nationally.

Democrats were careful to stress that they respect the Second Amendment and the rights of hunters, saying they were calling only for "commonsense" reforms.

Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D., N.J.) plans to reintroduce his bill to ban gun magazines holding more than 10 rounds, and U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah (D., Pa.) also got behind the calls to limit assault weapons and clip capacity.

While these Democrats are all familiar voices on the issue, they were bolstered by others who typically oppose new gun laws but signaled that they might modify their positions, including Sens. Mark Warner of Virginia and Joe Manchin of West Virginia. Warner, in a TV interview, noted that he has an "A" rating from the National Rifle Association.

"But enough is enough," Warner said. "I, like I think most of us, realize that there are ways to get to rational gun control."

While most New Jersey voters look favorably on gun control, the issue is politically fraught in Pennsylvania, which has a strong hunting tradition.

Both of the state's senators, Democrat Bob Casey and Republican Pat Toomey, have opposed new gun laws. U.S. Rep. Allyson Y. Schwartz (D., Pa.), often cited as a potential statewide candidate, prepared a speech Monday calling for "commonsense" gun laws but without mentioning any specifics. She was not made available for an interview.

Of six Philadelphia-area lawmakers who usually oppose new gun laws, none agreed to interviews with The Inquirer. Instead, they issued statements.

Casey called for "a comprehensive strategy" to address violence and said "everything should be on the table." He did not specifically mention guns.

In a Senate debate this fall, Casey said he opposed new gun legislation, a position he also put forward after the 2007 shootings at Virginia Tech.

Toomey's release sought "a thoughtful dialogue" on public safety and mental illness. It also made no mention of guns.

U.S. Rep. Pat Meehan (R., Pa.) and New Jersey Republican Reps. Jon Runyan and Frank LoBiondo all called for reexamining existing gun laws, but with protections for law-abiding gun owners.

A spokesman for U.S. Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick (R., Pa.) did not respond to e-mails seeking comment.

The NRA has gone quiet since Friday's shooting, as have most pro-gun lawmakers, leaving it to local groups to push back against the newly aggressive calls for new laws.

In Pennsylvania, a prominent gun-rights advocate said calls for a ban on assault weapons were "misdirected," do not have enough support to gain passage, and would not make schools safer.

Kim Stolfer, a former Marine from the Pittsburgh area who leads Firearms Owners Against Crime, said every school should have staff members who are armed and trained to take down an intruder.

"You need individuals in the school district who know how to use and have access to firearms, should they be needed," Stolfer said.

He said that members of Congress calling for new gun legislation were pandering to constituents.

Pennsylvania, with its thousands of licensed hunters, has long been one of the most pro-gun states in the East.

"Once you get outside of urban and suburban Pennsylvania," Republicans and Democrats have both historically opposed gun control, said G. Terry Madonna, a political science professor at Franklin and Marshall University.

But Democratic strategist Neil Oxman said "commonsense" gun laws - such as requiring child-safety locks or banning assault weapons - consistently poll well in Pennsylvania, even among gun owners and hunters.

"Overwhelmingly," Oxman said, "people are for commonsense answers."

Advocates for new gun laws cast their plans in those terms Monday. But with many Senate Democrats still silent and little word from Republicans who control the House, it's unclear whether the momentum for new regulations can survive the long slog to becoming law, or if Monday's responses are another in a series of efforts that ultimately fade.


Contact Jonathan Tamari at jtamari@phillynews.com or follow on Twitter @JonathanTamari. Read his blog 'CapitolInq' at www.philly.com/CapitolInq.

Inquirer staff writer Tom Infield contributed to this article.

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